Fotograf Magazine

The Discrete Charm of Theory

The scarce number of monographs on contemporary Czech art has received a recent addition in the form of Tomáš Pospiszyl’s volume with the promising title Asociativní dějepis umění (An Associative History of Art). Pospiszyl embarks here on five excursions using the method of association, linking the work of neo-avant-garde artists with the output of their contemporary “followers.” Symptomatic of his approach is the opening of the book, an essay dedicated to collage confronting the work of Jiří Kolář with the contemporary artists Eva Koťátková and Dominik Lang. His detailed analysis of Kolář’s techniques and an all too brief definition of the work of the two contemporary artists nonetheless leaves the reader with a rather vague idea of collage itself, and the evolving context and meanings it attains. As Pospiszyl writes: “Channel surfing, playing computer games, browsing interactive web-pages, experience with remixed music or creating software today all take forms that could be likened to collage.” (p. 54). The principle of collage according to Pospiszyl thus takes on a new meaning based on the more general cultural situation, which apparently also includes the experience of post-Internet art. The very occurrence of the term in the introduction to the book (p. 7) is curious proof that it has already made its way into the established canon of art history.

The most compelling section of Pospiszyl’s study seems to be his detailed and at the same time selective “archival” work with period materials. His recourse to the correspondence of Jiří Kolář, Georg Maciunas and Milan Knížák, for example, offers an insight into the institutional and conceptual tensions within the Fluxus movement. He connects this analysis with contemporary art through another form of cultural conditioning, which he defines as the global dimension (p. 79). Whereas the artistic initiatives of the 1960s explored the possibilities on offer for communication and sharing, nowadays when new technologies enable all manners of connectivity, what we lack, according to Pospiszyl, is an underlying purpose to all this communication. The next chapter also reveals a similar dynamic, which rather instrumentally connects the work of Stano Filko and Július Koller to a critique of the globalized art market and the ways in which it stereotypes peripheral and specifically East European art.

The fourth section questions issues of the dialogue between performance art and its documentation, once more showcasing the problem through examples of neo-avant-garde art (Jiří Kovanda) and the current generation (e. g. Daniela Baráčková). Given the general discontinuity of the book, he surprisingly draws a connection between the reflections of public space formed by “instruments of social control,” during both the Normalization Era and today. The final part of the book explores literary and filmic sources of the work of Ján Mančuška. The analysis of these is introduced by a summary of the complex origins of video art in Czechoslovakia and its relationship to experimental cinema. Thus although An Associative History of Art offers partial insights thanks to its “archival” approach and formal analysis of selected works, their selection and comparison alone does not really yield any novel conclusions. Collage, video art, post-Internet art and more general issues such as the global dimension of the contemporary art scene are only sketchily outlined, without any deeper connection to the existing bibliography on the subject.

The whole book in fact revolves around a series of associations which are nonetheless never woven into a coherent history or method, as the title might seem to promise, albeit with a degree of hyperbole. For this reason, and not only, one may regard An Associative History of Art as a sort of sequel to Pospiszyl’s earlier volume Comparative Studies (Srovnávací studie). Its debt to extant bibliography, particularly to writing on theory, is limited merely to points of reference. Pospiszyl does not embark on any polemic or form of comparative theory, and even his critique of other concepts is sporadic. The notes on methodology contained in the final paragraph of the book do little to dispel any doubts of theoretical coherence or the associative method the reader may have: “In contrast to traditional methodologies focusing on verifiable results and logical argument, the interdisciplinary approach inter-connecting different periods of time aims at a more free method of association and multi-faceted conclusions.” (p. 189)

Pospiszyl’s monograph is rich in inspiring impulses and descriptions which nonetheless are often resolved in conventional conclusions which he does not fully elaborate. The less than discrete charm of associations lacks a less striking but all the more important theoretical foundation. Still, the fact remains that Pospiszyl’s new book is very accessible and required reading for anyone interested in modern and contemporary Czech and Slovak art.

Václav Janoščík